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Lessons From the Brutal Truth of Steve Jobs

11/14/2011 08:57 am 08:57:03 | Updated Jan 14, 2012

In the early 90's I fell in love with Steve Jobs' new NeXT computer. I had used a Macintosh since I was 19 but after Jobs was kicked out of Apple I gravitated to his new invention, which blew the Mac away. As Rabbi at Oxford, I regularly hosted world leaders to lecture to our students and I had to have Jobs. So I arranged a meeting with one of his top lieutenants and traveled to Redwood City, California. As I pulled up in the parking lot, I saw Jobs standing outside speaking to someone. I walked over, politely introduced myself, and shared the purpose of my visit. Would he do us the honor of lecturing to Oxford's students? He treated me as an irritant, looked at my annoyingly, and said, "That is probably not the best way to get me to lecture." In my meeting an hour later, I shared my experience. His executive made no attempt to defend him. "Oh, that's just Steve. He can be a jerk. Don't take it personally."

As an ardent fan of all things Apple, I have not shared my experience until today. What changed was my reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, which portrays the Apple founder and leader as a largely cold and unfeeling tyrant. A great visionary who revolutionized computing, music and electronic consumer products, to be sure. But a mean-spirited man who treated most people in his life shabbily.

I wondered, why did Jobs pursue Isaacson to write the book? What could he gain from the biography? His place in history, especially that of the tech and corporate world, was already assured. Accounts of the incredible line of products he invented -- Mac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad -- were similarly known. The only thing left was to expose the truth about Jobs as a person, namely that he was a nasty bully who ended up being disliked by most of the people who worked for him. Yet Jobs, who authorized the biography, cooperated fully and allowed Isaacson to speak to anyone he wanted, assuring him he did not seek sugarcoated hagiography.

Jobs' explanation to Isaacson does not really suffice. He says he wanted the book so that his kids, whom he often neglected, would know what occupied his time. But why would any father want their kids to have such a negative image of their Dad?

I suggest the answer lies in what made Jobs special, amid being so unpleasant, namely, extreme honesty. If he thought you were a sub-par employee, he told you. If he thought you were a B-person, he said it to your face. If he thought you were a nudge who interrupted his meeting just to get him to lecture, he told you so in no uncertain terms.

Is that a better way to live than preserving social niceties and manners? Of course not. It's immoral and inexcusable, as Jobs himself acknowledges in his biography. But does it produce results? Well, life is short and not beating around the bush can sure save you a lot of time, which may explain why Jobs accomplished so much before his untimely death at age 56. Some say it was because he was classically Machiavellian, living by the dictum that it is better to be feared than loved. I disagree. Many tyrants at work simply alienate their employees who end up turning against them. Rather, Jobs cut through a lot of BS to get straight to the bottom line. He did so even in his products, believing that simplicity was the ultimate form of beauty and sophistication. Where Microsoft made products with a lot of buttons and features, Apple's are uncluttered and minimalist.

Radical honesty and truth is not for everyone and I personally reject the hurt and pain it causes its victims. Indeed, the Talmud says outright that he who humiliates his fellow in public has lost his place in the world to come, though I suspect that Jobs, given the joy he brought to so many with his products (myself included) might have the rules bent for him.

But while I reject Jobs' model, even if it means being orders of magnitude less successful than he (as indeed I am), I do believe the truth shall set you free and we need so much more of it in our society. In essence, lying has become the way we all live. When people ask us how we are, we are told to sound upbeat -- the power of positive thinking! -- even when we feel miserable. When people hurt us, rather than honestly but respectfully sharing our pain, we are taught to preserve a dignified face and pretend it didn't' happen. As a result, we have become boring and asinine people.

It was easy for Isaacson to write 600 pages on Jobs not because of his incredible products, but because of his incredibly complex personality. In short, he was a fascinating man and his courage in laying out the bare truth of his extremely flawed character has few precedents. But can the same be said of the rest of us?

Most boring of all are our politicians for whom lying is a way of life. They lie about why they go into politics -- it's always about the country and never about them -- and instead they lie about their flaws and inadequacies. My G-d, what I would give to have one politician, just one, stand up and admit the truth and win us all over with something utterly unexpected.

A good start would be Rick Perry, who has been an outstanding governor of Texas but who has come across as a moron in the presidential debates. If I were him I would stand up and say, "True, my friends. I am not the brightest circuit on the motherboard. But high intelligence does not a great leader make. Albert Einstein originally advocated unilateral disarmament against Germany and Jimmy Carter, our worst leader, had the highest IQ of any modern president. Ronald Reagan was dismissed as a dufus for most of his presidency and even Abraham Lincoln was portrayed as a knuckle-dragging, semi-literate backwoodsman whose embarrassing appearance and stories made people cringe. Rather, a great leader is someone with great convictions and principles and I have shown you all, in running my state, that though I probably won't earn a Ph.D. in this lifetime, I have good judgment and I surround myself with really bright people. So, from today henceforth, I will no longer try and memorize thousands of statistics that are not very relevant or fraudulently promise to close down government agencies that I am not overly concerned with. I will simply be me. Just plain, simple, honest me."

Wow, that and a good record of performance would get my vote. The chances of it happening, however, are probably about the same chances I had that Steve Jobs was going to accept my lecture invitation twenty years ago.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has just published of "Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself." (Wiley) and will shortly publish "Kosher Jesus." Follow him on his website www.shmuley.com and on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.